Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Leontief false criticism of Limits to Growth

This was written when I was with the Applied Mathematics Division of the DSIR in September 1977. The point of disinformation concerning global trends remains valid today in 2009.


Dr. J. L. Robinson, DSIR

This note presents some comments on a report to the United Nations, “The Future of the World Economy”, by a team headed by Nobel Prize winning economist Wassily Leontief.

To quote the Dominion, “Amongst the most significant aspects of the study are its rejection of predictions by the Club of Rome that the world will run out of resources and choke on its pollution if it continues to expand its economy”. It would seem then that, contrary to “The Limits to Growth”, this U.N. study contains data which tells us that (to quote from the Summary): “No insurmountable physical barriers exist within the twentieth century to the accelerated development of the developing regions”. If we were to read this carefully and to refer back to the Club of Rome report, we would find that this statement is in fact in compete accord with “The Limits to Growth”. The key words here are within the twentieth century, for the modelling of “The Limits to Growth” suggested widespread resource depletion in the second or third decades of the twenty-first century. It is possible to reach that conclusion indeed from the data presented in “The Future of the World Economy”, for by the year 2000 cumulative production exceeds the pessimistic resource endowments for copper, nickel, zinc and lead; and the study implies a continuing exponential growth of useage into the next century. A cynical critic might suppose that the authors of “The Future of the World Economy” had done their homework well, and had been guided by “The Limits to Growth” in their choice of cutoff data for their projections; for by choosing to project to 2000 and no further they kept (just) on the safe side of the potential resource depletion collapse.

In essence the two reports, “The Limits to Growth” and “The Future of the World Economy”, cover much of the same ground, and from similar input data, present similar forecasts. Only the wording is different. But the message of each is contained in that choice of wording. The choice is then between statements (both true) such as (a) there is no certainty that we can feed the increasing world population, and (b) there is no certainty that we cannot feed the world population. The U.N. study, for example, which implies some improvements in the situation of the developing nations, indicates a requirement for increases of agricultural output by the year 2000 of 338 per cent for Africa (tropical), 309 per cent for Africa (arid), 406 per cent for Asia (low income) and 432 per cent for Latin America (low income). Perhaps the authors are correct when they say that the potential for change in agriculture in the developing countries is well recognised. But if such increases are not achieved, or if population growth does not slow down in a dramatic and unexpected manner, then these figures indicate a large number of human beings living and dying in abject misery. Against the optimistic viewpoint of "'The Future of the World Economy" must be set warnings by L.R .Brown, ,director of the Worldwatch Institute, that in many cases the worlds principal biological systems - forests, fisheries, grasslands and croplands - have already reached the breaking point; and that, tragically, there have been at least temporary upturns in death rates in many poorer countries during the 1970's.

So the language used is of key importance in a study such as this. All of the numbers in these reports suggest a future that could be horrible beyond all imagination. It is important not to gloss over the situation - no matter how pleasing that may be to developing nations who want to catch up with the fortunate minority, or to the developed nations who have no desire for a decrease in standard of living. Neither should we shout doom in a manner that leaves the audience too shocked to respond. It is important that we all realise that if current trends continue mankind will deplete the available stocks of a number of vital resources, that the population may become too great for the food supply at the time; and, as importantly, that if we adapt and change we may be able to avert such catastrophies. L.R.Brown, as well as voicing the warnings referred to above, notes recent dramatic decreases in birth rates in many nations, both rich and poor, which show that stabilisation of the world population at a (hopefully) safe level this century is by no means impossible - even if it looks improbable today. For example, in China, the crude birth rate (annual number of births per 1000 population) dropped from an estimated 32 to 19 in a five-year period of concerted effort. This drop in birth rate has riot been matched in other parts of the developing world, but the Chinese experience does show what large changes are possible, as well as demonstrating the effort required. For the comprehensive Chinese effort focuses not only upon increasing family planning services, including abortion, but also upon reshaping economic and social policies to encourage small families, and upon an intensive public education program extolling the benefits of smaller families.

We can see the measure of the problem and the magnitude of the response needed to meet the challenge of the future. But we will never meet that challenge with our heads firmly fixed in the sand, and this study and more particularly the public statements of Professor Leontief do a disservice to us all.